Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With years to go in the process, the City of Missoula continues to grind through the tedious work of reforming its codes to better align with its goals around housing, equity, climate and a connected transportation system.

That work has currently entered a new phase of “defining the problem,” as one city official put it. And much of that has settled on current zoning and the inequities that some land-use planners say it has caused.

The root of the problem, they contend, is single-family zoning.

“It's an equity issue because today, most households in Missoula can't afford a single dwelling house,” said Jamin Kimmell of Cascadia Partners. “Lower density zoning encourages building larger, more expensive homes. From a developer's perspective, there's no incentive to build a 1,500 square foot home.”

The cost of housing in Missoula over the past decade has risen sharply. In 2010, the median price of a home reached $201,000, according to the Missoula Organization of Realtors. By the end of last year, it had topped $520,000.

While that includes all housing types, some see single-family homes as the crux of the problem, saying they represent some of the most expensive properties in the city and take up more land while housing fewer people.

Such zoning became popular in the 1940s, Kimmell said. But only now are some cities viewing single-family zoning as a drain rather than a benefit.

“Over time, most of the newly incorporated areas of Missoula were zoned for exclusive single-family dwellings, and many existing areas were down-zoned to single dwelling,” Kimmell said. “Single family zoning has resulted in inequities in both housing and land use.”

Broken down by economics, Kimmell said 64% of the land in Missoula is zoned for housing types that are affordable to only 30% of the city's residents.

In contrast, he said 36% of the land is zoned for housing that 60% of the city's population can afford.

“That basic economics of housing plays out in many issues,” Kimmell said, naming segregation as one. “It also constrains the overall supply of housing. Zoning's role in constraining the rate of new housing production contributes to some of those affordability challenges.”

Seeking "equitable" outcomes

Neither Cascadia Partners nor city officials have yet to debate market preferences – how some buyers still want a traditional home over a multi-family residence.

Nor have they recognized those buyers who sought out traditional single-family neighborhoods and may not support zoning changes that allow for duplexes, triplexes or apartments next door.

For now, at least, they're focusing on how zoning relates to displacement, or what some have described as gentrification.

“One of the things that tends to be associated with gentrification and displacement is having significant public investment in certain neighborhoods, making it more attractive to live in, which leads to more high-income residents wanting to live there,” Kimmell said.

Phase 1 of Hellgate Village. (Missoula Current file)
Phase 1 of Hellgate Village. (Missoula Current file)

As the city works to reform its zoning codes, it will do so through the lens of equity.

“These findings drive us to take action,” said Eran Pehan, the city's director of development. “There are equity implications in our code.”

Pehan and others said that with housing prices on the rise, action is needed sooner rather than later, and there are some easy fixes that could emerge. Some changes to code could also be forced by the Legislature, which is considering a number of bills related to housing, development and the state's Land Use and Planning Act.

But Pehan also said that change for change's sake won't likely end with success. Rather, she encouraged a deliberate and thoughtful approach to reform.

“We know people are struggling today and we need to act. We too see the urgency in this work,” she said. “But taking any action isn't the answer. We don't have to chose between rushing to a solution on one end and doing nothing on the other end.”